It was Westward …. er… Northward Ho as the kids from Webster Elementary’s room 3 boarded a plane at LAX last month and headed for California’s gold country. Fourth grade teacher Bea Poole and aide Susan Cooley say hands-on experience is the best way to learn so they decided to give their students a closer look at the pioneer life they’d been studying in class.
Instead of the usual tour of Sutter’s Fort, students roamed the grounds, searching for answers to a list of questions given by Poole and Cooley. Afterward, they camped in tents at Earthtreck-American River camp in Coloma.
For 2 days, they watched and learned as instructors, using character costumes and props, taught lessons of earlier days. A Native American Pnaci brought to life tales of days gone by. A mountain man, dressed like Daniel Boone, talked about day to day life, like how the pioneers tended open wounds by filling them with gunpowder and lighting them on fire. “It felt like a book,” said 9-year-old Sean O, who is augmenting his lessons by reading the book Brian’s Winter. “When the mountain man talked, it was just like in my book,” he said.
Butter churning, leather tooling and ice cream making were on the agenda. Students also got to try their hands at musical instruments and, the personal favorite of 10-year-old Brook D., tin smithing. “It’s really fun,” said Brooke. “We hammered on tin and made little designs. Just to do that all day would be really fun.” Had she been a pioneer, Brooke says tin smithing would have been her chosen profession. “I think people would buy them because they look really good,” she added. “I think it would be a good way to make a living because it’s not hard.”
But students quickly learned that other ways of making a living were not so easy, like panning for gold on the river bank. “We had these plastic pans with ripples,” explained Sean O. “We’d just scoop up a bunch of sand and dirt and slurp it around. First, you just see the sand. Finally, you see the gold. We would just yell “Eureka, Eureka!'”
“The first time it wasn’t fun because I couldn’t find anything,” said 10-year- old Anthony G. “The water was freezing,” added 10 year old Sean A. “It’s hard because you only find little specks, not big nuggets.”
But pioneer life wasn’t all work and no play. To see the lighter side of life, students were treated to a stop at the Old Coloma Theater. The kids watched and chuckled as their teachers and some of their peers took part in an old fashioned melodrama complete with hero and villain. “It was a story of how James Marshall found the gold,” said Brooke who noted that she and her classmates still tease Cooley, who played the part of a miner.
Cooley knows the ribbing is all in fun. “We are like family,” said Poole, who has watched the class grow together for the past two years. Poole taught the same students in the 3rd grade last year and says she and Cooley will move with them next fall to the 5th grade.
Despite the seemingly hectic pace, there were quiet times. Some students say their best memories came from just relaxing with their friends. Ten-year-old Louie G. says the best part of his trip was staying in a Sacramento hotel, after the lessons and stories were finished. “You could just watch TV,” Louie said. “You didn’t do much. You could just talk and stuff.”
Poole and Cooley said they knew the trip would be educational but they hadn’t counted on the extent. “We got on the plane and looked around and realized some of these kids had never been on a plane before,” said Cooley.
For 9 year old Berta P. it wasn’t just her first plane trip, it was her first time away from home. “I was a long way from home,” said Berta. “It was a little bit scary and fun,” she said adding that she would do it again.
For Berta and the others, the next chance will come next year when Poole and Cooley take the kids to Yosemite National Park, Washington D.C. and Boston. “We’re going to learn so much more about history, like the Revolutionary War,” said Sean O. “It’s going to be great.”